Changing the narrative of sexual violence

The host of Asia’s Next Top Model and feminist activist, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, speaks about using video to spark important dialogues, and how social change starts with each of us

It all started with a video

It’s funny, because I didn’t intend to spark a campaign. It all came from a moment of emotion. Back in March, ahead of the Songkran festival, I’d read a message from an official in a newspaper suggesting that women should dress conservatively to avoid sexual harassment.

I was incensed. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape is never the woman’s fault. And yet it is the survivors who are scrutinized, not the perpetrators. Victim-blaming marginalizes the survivor and make it much more difficult to come forward and report the abuse. Not only do perpetrators of violence not get blamed, but they mostly go unpunished. 87 per cent of rape cases are not reported to the police in Thailand. How can we end the stigma against reporting if we’re still blaming women for their own abuse? It’s attitudes that have to change, not women’s fashion choices.

I knew I had to make a stand. I decided to get out my phone and speak frankly to my followers about it. Before I knew it, the video had gone viral.

Cindy’s video received over 100k views

I realized that I had a choice: I could either let it go as a one-off, or take ownership and use this online conversation I had started as an opportunity to produce for something bigger and more sustainable.

And so I launched the campaign #DontTellMeHowToDress. I spoke openly about double standards and victim-blaming on my social media channels, and organised an exhibition of the clothing worn by women survivors when they were attacked. From t-shirts to pyjamas, I wanted to highlight how modest clothing doesn’t protect women from violence.

Video connects

I now understand more than ever how social media has the potential to provide a wide range of people with a platform to create meaningful dialogue around issues they care about. Looking back, I keep thinking to the moment when I uploaded that first video. I think the video was popular not just because of what I was saying, but how I was saying it.

I could have used a photo, written a caption to go with it and posted that instead, but there is something about video that is more authentic. People can tell if you’re just saying something for the sake of it, or if someone is putting words in your mouth.

Video feels personal. It has the power to connect people from all over the world on a more human level; it is an incredible medium for social change.

Using influence responsibly

I started my YouTube channel around a year and a half ago. I wanted to use the platform in a way that is both productive and inspiring. Campaigns like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #DontTellMeHowToDress have done so much to highlight how powerful women and girls’ voices can be.

But by speaking up, there can negative backlash.

While I received countless messages from people thanking me for highlighting an issue they also felt passionately about, I inevitably ruffled a few feathers. There can sometimes be a dark side to the internet: online bullying and hateful comments. It’s not that I’m not affected by it, but I’ve been in the entertainment industry for 25 years. If a 13-year-old girl is targeted, that can do some serious damage. We should think carefully about using our voices respectfully and in constructive ways.

And that’s what I intend to do. I’m countering that hate speech by continuing to advocate for what I believe in.

Part of that involves supporting feminist initiatives, like UNDP’s N-Peace Network. Another part involves using YouTube and social media to move the #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign forward. My husband and I produced videos about sexual harassment, abuse, and rape, together with some of Thailand’s most prominent celebrities. I’ve put those up on my channel so that they can keep to be shared in the future.

Moving forward, I’ve just started a YouTube video collaboration with an NGO called “Real Talk”. In this series, I interview people who have all been affected by gender-based violence to showcase different voices: the mothers of two teenage survivors, a perpetrator who himself was assaulted, and a woman police-officer. The more we start conversations about this, the more productive we can be about changing the narrative around sexual violence.

It’s going to be a big departure from the things I am used to making. But I have found that when it comes to online activism, sometimes you have to take the plunge.

Social change has to start with you.

(This blog originally featured in The Nation)


About the author

Cindy Sirinya Bishop is the host of Asia’s Next Top Model Season 4 & 5, an international MC, actress, supermodel, and feminist activist.

Written as-told-to Mailee Osten-Tan, supporting YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative in Asia in partnership with UNDP.